Imperial Stars II, a great little 4X space game (review)

A game that’s been on my “to be played pile” for a while for a considerable time just recently saw the light of day, IMPERIAL STARS II.   Why “Two”?  Apparently the designer, Chris Taylor, created a Print and Play by the same name (but radically different game engine) at some point in the past.  Anyway, I pulled off of the pile, punched and played Imperial Stars II this weekend.  And replayed.  And replayed… But I digress– first, the basics:

Imperial Stars II
Designer: Chris Taylor
Publisher: Victory Point Games
SRP: 27$ boxed, 22$ polybag, less other sources.

Imperial Stars II (IS2) is a four X game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate, a term, ironically enough, coined by Alan Emrich back in 1993 when reviewing Masters of Orion for a magazine article– now he’s the alpha dog of Victory Point Games) .  IS2 comes with 2 double sided 11 x 17 star maps, each unique.  The counter mix is balanced between the two sides, at 38 space ships and bases of various abilities for each side.  There are 14 random planet pieces that will give the player certain abilities that will be of value for either economic expansion or military domination.  There are 5 pieces (each) to determine how many Action Points (APs) are available to the active player that turn, to be drawn randomly from an opaque cup– 4,5,6,7 and 3/8 APs.  More on those later.  Aside from a couple of pointy markers, two more charts and four six sided dice, that’s it.

First move, yellow side is the Acting Player, red the Non-Acting Player. Yellow draws the FIVE AP marker and adds one. That leaves him just enough to colonize, ending the turn.

The art direction on this game was stellar (see what I did there?), matched by the production values.   The maps are wonderful, depicting space not as black and white dots but with rich purple, green and yellow nebulae.  The planets are largish for the scale but then again so are the ships.  The ships on the counter art were very deco (I thought) but not cartoonish.  I particularly enjoyed the fact that they each had their own visual style and weren’t copies of each other.

IS2 starts with most of the player’s forces in two holding areas, Alpha and Beta.  A small force of DD destroyers and mixed CV carriers are on the map, plus one base station (BS).   The players take turns being active and non-active players, reaching into an opaque cup to pull out Operations Chits (OCs).  As they are pulled from the opaque cup, they are not returned, which is how the game ends– the final turn arrives at the final OC Chit being pulled.   OC chits are (as stated above) marked, 4,5,6,7 and 3/8.  The active player adds that total to the one for owning a Base Station and that becomes his ‘use or lose’ Operations budget for that turn. In the case of the 3/8 chit, the player has an option of adding 8 points straight or 3 plus a new Base Station (you have up to 3) anywhere on the map.  Operations are pretty simply defined– basically moving, colonizing, reinforcing and fighting.

Still early in the game, a yellow exploration fleet probes red’s resolve around their base station. They are outgunned.

Colonizing is fairly simple; sacrifice a ship by flipping it over and that becomes a colony.  Colonies contribute to the global economic condition for each side– you figure out your status by counting colonies.    Movement is regulated by the movement capacity on the counter and the number of APs for the Active player.
Combat is classic old style in two flavors: Fighter Swarms and Beam Combat.  Beam combat is resolved on a CRT that is so classic it would make Jim Dunnigan sigh with nostalgia.  The defender has the option to stay and fight or attempt to retreat.  If he stays, Combat strength is totaled, a pair of 6 siders is rolled and the result is cross-indexed for losses.  Losses are tracked by physically rotating the ship counter around.  When the ship/base takes its final hit, it’s thrown into the scrapyard, where it can be recycled.

Fighter Swarms can attack if the launching ship has a little triangle on it (or more than one).  See the top picture– the ship nearest the planet in the foreground, the CVB, can launch 2 dice worth of fighter swarms (btw, think of these as robotic drones more than Galactica style Vipers, that’s what the fluff says).  The number of losses is modified by a terrain table which drastically effects combat.

Once a ship hits the scrapyard it can be recycled on a graduating scale.  If you have a certain number of ships in scrap, you can get one of that type back.  An elegant method of extending the counter mix, in my opinion.

Victory is arrived at simply– if you control the enemy’s home world hex, you win a sudden death victory.  If nobody has arrived at sudden death, you count victory points for planetary systems controlled and colonies owned.

So, what do I think?

I don’t mean to gush here.  I didn’t like this game– I loved it.   It’s easy to figure out, it contains mechanics that make sense and are simple, it plays briskly once you resolve a few rules questions, and it’s expandable with lots of replay value (four maps, with wildly different terrain, for starters).  I suspect strongly there will be an expansion pack for Imperial Stars II at some point in the future– the only criticism I had was that I wanted even more units and more “science fictiony” themed units beyond the decidedly nautical unit mix– like planet destroyers, automated machine ships, espionage, technology upgrades, more and different kinds of combat.. IS2 is  a fun little SF 4X, delivering so much more with its tiny box and small unit mix than much more expensive game have managed in recent years.  I’m looking at you, Space Empires 4X…

Imperial Stars II isn’t exactly ground breaking but it is like a nostalgic return to the games of yesteryear, or it was for me.  I very much enjoyed it.


One response to “Imperial Stars II, a great little 4X space game (review)

  1. “I suspect strongly there will be an expansion pack for Imperial Stars II at some point in the future…”

    Funny you should mention that! The expansion kit is currently out in beta testing right now! 😀 – Alan Emrich